The Woman who Married a Bear

Sarah Jane Barnett on the mythical animals of Fiordland

Early this year I wrote a poem about black bears being released along the Rangitata River. It was the final in a series of six poems that make up my forthcoming collection, WORK (Hue & Cry Press). The poem was sparked by an article about moose being released in New Zealand in the early 1900s. Four young moose (ten having died on the ship journey from Canada) were unloaded at Greymouth and then taken by train to Hokitika where they were set free into the Hokitika Gorge. The news reports likened them to ‘pet ponies’ who wanted to eat ‘biscuits’ from their handler’s hands. I imagine the large cups of their antlers disappearing into the West Coast rain.

In 1910 another ten moose were shipped to New Zealand and arrived via Hobart. This time they were released in Fiordland which was considered better terrain. Over the years trampers and farmers photographed the moose; In 1923 Charles Evans photographed two moose at Supper Cove, and in 1925 two cows were seen swimming in the flooded Seaforth River. In 1927 someone sighted two young bulls and a cow.

In 1929 Eddie Herrick shot and killed a bull, and then he shot another in 1934. In 1950 it was Gordie Cowie who shot a bull. Later on there were some other men with different names who did the shooting.

The last sighting of a moose was by Fred Stewardson, who in 1953 shot them with an Agfa Super Silette with a telephoto lens. He took three grainy and black and white photographs while on a hunting trip to Wet Jacket Arm. In the best photograph the bull’s head is raised and in focus. He has an elongated nose and thick neck. The grasses silhouette against his broad grey body.

Of the moment Stewardson recalls, 'It's just a pity that I never took more time but it was the excitement of seeing three wonderful animals right there and Ed saying, "Don't shoot. Photos, photos, photos" … Ed was a terrific guy in not shooting everything he saw and he taught me so much over many years hunting with him.'

I felt a deep sadness reading about the moose. How strange it must have been for the animals to find themselves in misty Fiordland. How amazing they managed, at least for a time, to survive. In my poem a DOC hunter, Christine, has been sent to kill a rogue bear which is living on the dusky flats of the Rangitata. The poem weaves the hunt with flashbacks from Christine’s relationship with a woman, Karen, who could not accept her asexuality. Just as I couldn’t resist personifying the moose, Christine begins to see herself in the bear: